Walter Pater Pater, Walter (Horatio) - Essay


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Walter (Horatio) Pater 1839-1894

English essayist, novelist, and fictional portrait writer. For further information on Pater’s career, see NCLC, Volume 7.

Considered one of the greatest English critics of the nineteenth century, Pater was a major proponent of aestheticism who helped to make Renaissance art appreciated in his era. Distinguished as the first major English writer to formulate an explicitly aesthetic philosophy of life, he promoted the “love of art for art's sake” as the richest way to experience life passionately. In his Studies in the History of the Renaissance (1873) and Marius the Epicurean: His Sensations and Ideas (1885), Pater is both an original stylist and a highly perceptive critic who notes things others do not. Marius the Epicurean has been called the first anti-novel, so unlike most novels is its style and structure. Exalting beauty, art, and the artist, Pater's writings have appealed to and influenced many authors. Oscar Wilde and the young William Butler Yeats are included among his acknowledged disciples, and critics have detected Pater's influence in the work of Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, Wallace Stevens, Joseph Conrad, Ezra Pound, and T. S. Eliot. Pater is recognized as a master prose stylist and a leading exemplar of impressionist criticism.

Biographical Information

Pater was born in Shadwell, East London, the second of four children of Richard Pater and Maria Hill. His father, a surgeon, died when Pater was two years old, and the remaining members of the family moved to Enfield, where Pater attended grammar school. He enrolled in King's School in Canterbury in 1853, the year before the death of his mother, and in 1858 won a scholarship to Queen's College at Oxford, where he studied the classics and was inspired by John Ruskin's Modern Painters. After taking a degree in humane letters in 1862 and working briefly as a tutor of private pupils, he accepted a fellowship at Brasenose College, Oxford, in 1864—a position he would keep until his death. His first published essay, a work on Samuel Taylor Coleridge, appeared in Westminster Review in 1866. Though published anonymously, “Coleridge's Writings,” with its promotion of relativism, made Pater's colleagues question his intellectual heterodoxy. Pater lived the last twenty-five years of his life with his two unmarried sisters in both Oxford and London. Much of what is known or thought to be known concerning Pater's life is gleaned from the autobiographical “The Child in the House” (which first appeared in Macmillan's in 1878, and was published as An Imaginary Portrait in 1894). Indeed, critics have noted that nearly all of Pater's work contains autobiographical elements, and that he often wrote about himself while apparently recounting another's life and career.

Major Works

In 1867 Pater published, again anonymously, “Winckelmann,” a piece extolling Greek culture and art, followed by “Poems by William Morris” (1868), “Notes on Leonardo da Vinci” (1869), “A Fragment of Sandro Botticelli” (1870), and “The Poetry of Michelangelo” (1871), among others. In these essays Pater eschewed absolute critical standards in favor of his own personal impressions of the artists' works. Pater collected his various writings and included them with other pieces in Studies in the History of the Renaissance, a volume which provoked strong objections to his methods. Most notorious is the book's “Conclusion,” Pater's boldest statement of his relativist view of art and life. In the “Conclusion” Pater explained that we are here but for a brief interval; that we should strive to expand this interval; and that to do so we need to get “as many pulsations as possible into the given time.” Pater asserted that practicing the love of art for art's sake is the best means of multiplying one's consciousness. The essay created a scandal at Oxford and damaged Pater's chances for academic advancement, with critics attacking the piece as antireligious propaganda that could negatively influence impressionable young minds. Conversely, young “aesthetes” such as Oscar Wilde, Lionel Johnson, and Arthur Symons interpreted the “Conclusion” as a manifesto for artistic freedom and became the leading members of his coterie of literary disciples. Pater, the precise reasons for which scholars still argue, withdrew the “Conclusion” from the second edition, retitled The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry (1877). His next major work was Marius the Epicurean, which was written with the avowed purpose of elucidating the thoughts suggested in the “Conclusion.” The ambitious novel follows the career of the fictional character Marius as he searches for a satisfactory philosophy of life in Aurelian Rome. Marius considers but eventually rejects a number of nondeist philosophies but is finally attracted to the ritual and sense of community which he discovers in the early Christian church. Imaginary Portraits (1887) is a collection of essays that had been published in Macmillan's Magazine, including “Sebastian van Storck,” “A Prince of Court Painters: Extracts from an Old French Journal,” “Denys l’Auxerrois,” and “Duke Carl of Rosenmold.” In these essays Pater imaginatively recreated the interaction of various intellectual, artistic, and moral temperaments with the cultures of selected periods of historical transition. The 1888 edition of The Renaissance contained the restored but slightly modified “Conclusion” and “The School of Giorgione,” which discusses the relationship between form and matter in art. Five chapters of the novel Gaston de Latour were published in Macmillan's in 1888 (published in book form in 1896) before Pater abandoned the work. Two additional major works were published in Pater's lifetime: Appreciations: With an Essay on Style (1889) and Plato and Platonism (1893). In Appreciations Pater used subjective impressionism to elucidate the qualities informing the genius of Coleridge, William Wordsworth, and others. The essay “Style” concerns itself with the art of writing prose and finding the perfect word to convey a particular mood and meaning. Plato and Platonism explored the genius of a culture which, in Pater's eyes, achieved a balance between the physical and the spiritual.

Critical Reception

In general Pater's contemporaries, mollified by his apparent rapprochement with Christianity in Marius, praised him in his final years. His reputation faltered, however, after the imprisonment of Wilde in 1895 and the general dissipation of other “aesthetic” disciples of Pater. In recent decades there has been a renewed critical interest in Pater, and scholars continue to find evidence of his profound influence on the works of many twentieth-century critics, poets, and novelists. Much modern interest has also been generated by Pater's possible homosexuality. While some scholars maintain that factual evidence of Pater's personal sexual orientation is at best scant, others have forwarded homoerotic and psychosexual readings of his work. A great deal of attention focuses on Marius the Epicurean, portions of which are generally considered autobiographical, and its attempt to, in Richard Dellamora's words, “reconsider Christianity so as to include homosexuality within it.” The exact nature of Marius's interest in Christianity and the circumstances surrounding his death have provoked debate, as has the matter of how much of himself Pater wrote into Marius; Pater characteristically remained silent on the subject of his own personal faith. Pater's reputation now appears firmly established. J. Hillis Miller, writing in 1976, called Pater one of the greatest English literary critics of the nineteenth century and a “precursor of what is most vital in contemporary criticism.” William E. Buckler asserts that Pater “is still one of a half-dozen indispensable critics in English; from, say, 1880 to 1920, he was without equal.”

Principal Works

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Studies in the History of the Renaissance (essays) 1873; also published as The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry, 1877

Marius the Epicurean: His Sensations and Ideas. 2 vols. (novel) 1885

Imaginary Portraits (fictional portraits) 1887

Appreciations: With an Essay on Style (essays) 1889

Plato and Platonism: A Series of Lectures (lectures) 1893

An Imaginary Portrait (fictional portrait) 1894; also published as The Child in the House, 1895

Greek Studies (essays) 1895

Miscellaneous Studies (essays) 1895

Essays from the “Guardian” (essays) 1896

Gaston de Latour (unfinished novel) 1896

Uncollected Essays (essays) 1903

The Works of Walter Pater. 10 Vols. (essays, novel, unfinished novel, fictional portraits, and lectures) 1910

Walter Pater: Selected Works (essays, novel, fictional portraits, and lecture) 1948

Letters of Walter Pater (letters) 1970

J. Hillis Miller (essay date 1976)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Walter Pater: A Partial Portrait” in Walter Pater (Modern Critical Views), edited by Harold Bloom, Chelsea House Publishers, 1985, pp. 75-95.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1976, Miller examines Pater's thoughts on such topics as time, virtue, personality, uniqueness, repetition, form, meaning, and subjectivity; he also contends that the various and contradictory readings of his positions are irreconcilable.]

Walter Pater is, along with Coleridge, Arnold, and Ruskin, one of the four greatest English literary critics of the nineteenth century. He is also, of the four, the most influential in the twentieth century and the most alive today,...

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Paul Barolsky (essay date 1982)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Walter Pater's Renaissance,” inThe Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 58, No. 2, Spring, 1982, pp. 208-20.

[In the following essay, Barolsky extols The Renaissance as a literary work of art that is at once historical, autobiographical, philosophical, and poetical.]

A flood of publications on the elusive Victorian scholar-aesthete, Walter Pater, has appeared during the last two decades. As plans for a critical edition of his works are now being made, the writings on him continue to flow from the presses, threatening to submerge his achievement in their vastness, as they seek to sustain it. Books, articles, anthologies, Ph.D. dissertations, symposia, and...

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Jerome Bump (essay date 1982)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Seeing and Hearing in Marius the Epicurean,” in Nineteenth Century Fiction, Vol. 37, No. 2, September, 1982, pp. 188-206.

[In the following essay, Bump describes how Pater uses aural imagery and performatives in Marius the Epicureanto lead Marius to “the music of Logos” and “a fuller sense of human communication.”]

It would be difficult to overestimate just how pervasive are the spatial paradigms of literature we have inherited from Pater. Sharon Bassett points out that Pater was an important precursor of Edmund Wilson, Kenneth Burke, Northrop Frye, and the American deconstructionists, and demonstrates that the source of Pater's...

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Nathan A. Scott, Jr. (essay date 1983)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Pater's Imperative—To Dwell Poetically,” in New Literary History, Vol. XV, No. 1, Autumn, 1983, pp. 93-118.

[In the following essay, Scott describes the plot of Marius the Epicurean and defends Pater against critics who, he contends, misread his appeal in “the central statement of his career.”]

                                                                                I require of you only to look.

St. Teresa of Avila

                                                                                 … yet poetically, dwells

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Austin Warren (essay date 1983)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Pondering Pater: Aesthete and Master” in The Sewanee Review, Vol. XCI, No. 4, Fall, 1983, pp. 643-54.

[In the following essay, Warren describes some characteristics of the aesthetic type, comments on the ways in which they do and do not apply to Pater, and speculates on Pater's religious faith.]

The aesthete is a late-appearing, a decadent type of man—a man who, having the practical basis of life provided, the economic basis, and security, not for the day or the year but for a vague perpetuity, is free to enjoy. The aesthete is one kind of hedonist, of man who can, and does, live for pleasure. But his pleasures are not of the cruder sort, such as...

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Richard Dellamora (essay date 1983)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “An Essay in Sexual Liberation, Victorian Style: Walter Pater's ‘Two Early French Stories’” in Literary Visions of Homosexuality, edited by Stuart Kellogg, The Haworth Press, 1983, pp. 139-50.

[In the following essay, Dellamora contends that Pater's revision of the first chapter of The Renaissanceattempts to reconcile Christianity and homoeroticism.]

The following essay challenges a common view of the career of Walter Pater: that he criticized Victorian religious beliefs and social mores in his first book, Studies in the History of the Renaissance (1873), then spent the rest of his life backing down.1 Such a retreat appears to...

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Gerald Monsman (essay date 1984)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “‘Definite History and Dogmatic Interpretation’: The ‘White-nights’ of Pater's Marius the Epicurean,” in Criticism, Vol. 26, No. 2, Spring, 1984, pp. 171-91.

[In the following essay, Monsman asserts that Pater's work contains many alternative possible meanings; its ambiguities, variations, and masks defy final meaning, he concludes.]

White-nights! so you might interpret its old Latin name. ‘The red rose came first,’ says a quaint German mystic, speaking of ‘the mystery of so-called white things,’ as being ‘ever an after-thought—the doubles, or seconds, of real things, and themselves but half-real, half-material’...

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William E. Buckler (essay date 1985)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Poetics of Pater's Prose: ‘The Child in the House,’” in Victorian Poetry, Vol. 23, No. 3, Autumn, 1985, pp. 281-88.

[In the following essay, Buckler uses “The Child in the House” as an example of how Pater combines recollection, insight, and form to make his prose poetic.]

If one can profitably think of Arnold's key-signature poems as imaginary portraits, as I think one surely can, then the critical instruments appropriate for an exploration of how they work should, with certain obvious adjustments, be suitable for measuring the poetry they share with Pater's key-signature prose pieces. This, I suggest, is the case—that poems like...

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William E. Buckler (essay date 1987)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Pater's Apprenticeship in Critical Prose” in Walter Pater: The Critic as Artist of Ideas, New York University Press, 1987, pp. 1-35.

[In the following excerpt, Buckler traces Pater's aesthetic development as evidenced in his works.]

That Walter Pater is our premier exponent and exemplar of aestheticism has long been generally accepted. In the climactic words of Iain Fletcher, Pater “created himself for us in his oeuvre as a permanently significant symbolical figure: the most complete example, the least trivial, of the aesthetic man.”1 What has not been so readily perceived even by some who have written about him with sympathy and...

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Carolyn Williams (essay date 1989)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Opening Conclusions” in Transfigured World: Walter Pater's Aesthetic Historicism, Cornell University Press, 1989, pp. 11-37.

[In the following excerpt, Williams examines the infamous “Conclusion” to Studies in the History of the Renaissanceand explains what Pater meant in proposing aesthetic distance as an alternative to prevailing modern thought.]

My choice to begin with the “Conclusion” is not an empty gesture, though it is a familiar and almost traditional opening gesture in discussions of Pater's work. My reason has little to do with the fact that the “Conclusion” to the 1873 first edition of Studies in the History of the...

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John J. Conlon (essay date 1990)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Walter Pater and the Art of Misrepresentation,” in Annals of Scholarship, Vol. 7, No. 2, 1990, pp. 165-79.

[In the following essay, Conlon examines several of Pater's “artful misrepresentations” and argues that they were created to more fully present Pater's “imaginative sense of fact.”]

Oh Galuppi, Baldassaro, this is very sad to find!
I can hardly misconceive you; it would prove me deaf
                    and blind;
But although I take your meaning, ’tis with such
                    a heavy mind!

—Browning, “A Toccata of Galuppi's” (1855)

One immediate problem with the issue of...

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J. H. Stape (essay date 1990)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Comparing Mythologies: Forster's Maurice and Pater's Marius,” in English Literature in Transition, 1880-1920, Vol. 33, No. 2, 1990, pp. 141-53.

[In the following essay, Stape examines E. M. Forster's debt to Pater, particularly as demonstrated in parallels between Marius the Epicurean and Forster's Maurice.]


In her ninetieth birthday tribute to E. M. Forster, Elizabeth Bowen, having acknowledged that no English novelist had influenced her own fiction more than Forster, went on to query “who influenced him? One finds no traces.”1 As perhaps befit the occasion, Bowen generously overstated...

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Jay Fellows (essay date 1991)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Prose Architecture of Mental Abodes: The Presence of Inhabitable Language” in Tombs, Despoiled and Haunted: “Under-Textures” and “After-Thoughts” in Walter Pater, Stanford University Press, 1991, pp. 40-55.

[In the following excerpt, Fellows analyzes the nature of Pater's prose, describing it as stationary yet penetrating.]

The wind, persistent, the mantle, purple, the blond hair in the persistent wind against the chiselled features. Like a corpse, a mummy wrapped in a winding sheet, bound against that persistent wind which “for many years … had its dwelling among the mountains, [and] came as a stranger, darkly....

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Anne Marie Candido (essay date 1993)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Biography and the Objective Fallacy: Pater's Experiment in ‘A Prince of Court Painters,’” in Biography, Vol. 16, No. 2, Spring, 1993, pp. 147-60.

[In the following essay, Candido describes Pater's portrait of Jean-Antoine Watteau as radically incorporating multiple layers of perspective. Candido also discusses Pater's inclusion of himself as “editor” in order to demonstrate the impossibility of objective biography.]

An enlightening though largely unacknowledged essay by Charles Whibley, “The Limits of Biography,” appeared in England in 1897 in a periodical entitled The Nineteenth Century.1 The essay reflects new biographical...

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Christopher Coates (essay date 1994)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Exhumation and Anachronism: Walter Pater and Nineteenth-Century Historicism,” in Victorians Institute Journal, Vol. 22, 1994, pp. 99-113.

[In the following essay, Coates describes “Duke Carl of Rosenmold” as Pater's treatment of the conflict between historical difference and historical continuity.]

May it be my part in the future, to have not attained, but marked the goal of history, to have called it a name that no one else had. Thierry called it narration, and M. Guizot analysis. I have named it resurrection, and this name will remain.

Jules Michelet, Le Peuple


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Further Reading

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)


Benson, A. C. Walter Pater. 1906. Detroit: Gale Research Co., 1968, 226 p.

Classic biography of Pater.

Monsman, Gerald. Walter Pater. Twayne's English Author Series, edited by Sylvia E. Bowman, No. 207. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1977, 213 p.

Respected introduction to Pater's life and work.


Adams, James Eli. “Gentleman, Dandy, Priest: Manliness and Social Authority in Pater's Aestheticism.” ELH 59, No. 2 (Summer 1992): 441-66.

Discusses Pater's writing as demonstrating the dynamics of “manliness.”


(The entire section is 602 words.)